Recently by Jon Bounds
One of the best things about January is the return of Creme Eggs. We measure out religious festivals by the consumption of appropriate confectionery: Quality Street at Christmas, eggs at Easter, those fake buttons with hundreds and thousands on that taste like dog chocolate from the pick'n'mix when watching Mel Gibson films at the pictures, Ferrero Rocher at Ambassadors receptions (when held on the thirteenth Wednesday after Pentecost).
But the Creme Egg is different, at least round here. It says something about the esteem that Cadbury's is held in that people don't think it odd sending poets to protest about potential transfer of ownership of one large corporate identity to another, and the Creme Egg is the one people feel for.
It's the one people do this to:
It's the one people refer to first: back when I really wanted to be a music journalist I wrote a piece for now-defunct (aren't they almost all) magazine Flipside, the centrepiece of which was comparing Noddy Holder to a Creme Egg --ÃÂ you know "from the Midlands", "associated with a religious festival", "covered in silver foil", "deceptively sticky and covered in hairs", that sort of thing.
It's the one that people brought up when I asked people on Twitter what I should blog about here.
This column is wrong (go read it, fume, come back). But I don't think it's malicious. People have accused it of being trolling (deliberately winding up people online), of being stupid, of being lazy, of being ill-informed. Me, I just think it was something easy and (to Mr Lamb's mind) quite amusing.
It's not though, it's part of an unfortunate trend in deliberate misunderstanding that is making the job of increasing digital (and by extension social) participation more difficult. John Lamb says "social media is banal".
First, let's get the easy stuff out of the way. A communications platform cannot be banal. The use of it by people can be; but that's a good thing.
The so called banalities allow people to build relationships that are then used to do serious weighty stuff, an example from our fine city is how stupid things like a pantomime on Twitter (covered by the proper newspaper and featuring its editor) lead to serious long and hard work on civic activism such as the Big City Talk project. It's not a co-incidence that many of the people contributed to both.
As someone in PR John should be excited over the wealth of real information about their desires, likes, dislikes and activities people are willing to share with him. No more guessing or expensive polls or focus groups -- here are people all to willing to tell him exactly what they think (on Twitter and on the Post site today they're telling him exactly what they think).
I've been along to two wonderful art events over the last week, one you'll have to rush to catch -- the other is handily distilled into newspaper form.
Echoes from the Edge is an installation that uses film, sound, physical objects you can touch and even smells to evoke people's memories of Digbeth and Highgate. Friction Arts have been collaborating with US artist, Shannon Flattery, to create an interactive exhibition reflecting the voices, thoughts and histories of the residents and workers as the area undergoes it's most significant changes for forty years.
Local Digbeth blogger Nicky Getgood has been effusive with her praise, and I found much to make me agree. The interactive sets are immersive and the audio memories that you find along the trail will bring Birmingham to life. It's really spectacular and on until the 30th May, Thursday to Sundays.
My second art experience also took place in Digbeth, but in the rather more alcoholic atmosphere of the Anchor pub. It was the launch of the new issue of The Eccentric City bills itself as "the World's first dedicated eccentric newspaper" - and I'm sure it is, whatever oddness the Daily Mail et al get up to. It's the work of artist and "eccentric archaeologist" Harry Palmer who edits contributions from around the World, he says it "serves to review, preview, present and promote the nuances of personal and creative pursuits, interests and fascinations".
What shocked me about the home secretary's husband and the pay-per-view adult movies wasn't that he wanted to watch them, or that they accidentally found themselves part of an expenses claim, but that he didn't know how to find what he wanted on the Internet. It's not easy to stumble upon, but if you search, you'll find.
For someone engaged in any type of research, that's an alarming gap in his digital knowledge. Like looking up rude words in a dictionary, finding mucky pictures on the Internet is just a matter of knowing how things are structured. That and being unafraid of "breaking the Internet" by typing in the wrong thing.
People who don't "get" computers are often a bit scared of anything unexpected happening, if the window they're typing into disappears behind another then they're lost. Books and training courses are okay, if your system is exactly the same as those pictured -- otherwise you're flummoxed. Much training (either face-to-face or self taught) is task-based, meaning it teaches you how to do "something" -- for example type a letter -- usually by following a series of steps. This is fine unless anything goes wrong, and is fine unless you suddenly want to write a novel. It's also true that when you're doing the learning, you're probably not itching to communicate with your bank at that particular moment.
Knowledge of "how to do things" with computers is not as important as the confidence to try to use them to do whatever you want, unafraid of pushing the wrong button, clicking on the wrong icon, or getting frustrated. When I do training with people on any aspect of computers I try to find out what they want to do, and then help them to ask the right questions and try things out while doing it for real. This helps build the confidence as well as the skills -- but what when people don't know what's possible?
I awoke with an excited start this morning, when twitter informed me that Google Street View was now live for the UK. If you've not heard of Street View, then you've not been reading the scared sections of the press that have called it a "burglar's charter". It isn't.
What it is is a record of what most streets in the UK looked like at some point last year when the Google Car came past. I had high hopes of being mapped myself, after all I took a photo of the car:
It was not to be (I live in a cul-de-sac so it came past twice) although the camera did catch next door's cat having a snooze:
Dull, insipid, lifeless; you can see why the powers that be thought Coldplay would be an ideal fit for the way that Birmingham City have been playing recently.
But to remove 'Mr Blue Sky', and 'The Tamperer' from the playlist at St Andrews as the teams were coming out last night ("to revive recent flagging fortunes" speculated the Telegraph) shows very little understanding of how people are attached to our own bits of history.
ELO's 'Mr Blue Sky' has been a St Andrews staple for years, and has with a loop of 'The Tamperer' (in fact a sample from The Jackson Five's 'Can You Feel It') been clapped along with gusto by fans for over a decade. My personal memories are all based around quickening my step between pub and main stand as the "dum dun dun" bit started up and breaking into sight of the pitch as it reached the bit where the clapping started.
This stuff is important, a while ago I was researching a book based on how songs and football were so linked, and how - for example - mobile DJs have to know that in certain areas playing 'The Liquidator' will do nothing but cause trouble. The taut ska classic has been played a Black Country football grounds for years, with accompanying "earthy" lyrics, it's even been banned on Police advice. While looking I dug up council minutes discussing it, which beats the apostrophe meanderings Cllr Mullaney brought to our attention as a waste of valuable meeting time.
Almost all music gets divided up by these tribal lines, and it's important to be aware of how it affects people. It doesn't take long for a tune to become "our song", even if the "our" is 20,000 football fans.
But as an organisation, you can't force it. Whoever, and I'm expecting it to be quite high-up, decided to change the run-out music just doesn't understand it. That they also decided to pipe a snatch of UB40 through the weedy (they've admitted it's not good enough) PA when we scored shows they have no idea how the fans' minds work.
The Birmingham Post has been dropping hints about Twitter (the microblogging / messaging tool) for some time - reminding you that it's the first place you'll get to know of breaking news stories, saying that it's good for networking and trying to persuade you that it's fun. The big paper has covered it sensibly, unlike the Mail on Sunday who decided that their readerships' first introduction should be a shock horror piece on how Jonathan Ross was "wasting his time" while suspended from the BBC.
Jonathan Ross, or @wossy as he is on Twitter is continuing in the vein of Stephen Fry. He's using Twitter just as anyone should - posting his updates himself, just saying what he thinks is interesting at the time and most importantly joining in the conversation. This is of course more difficult for "celebrities" as they will soon get a lot more people talking to them than they could ever listen to or answer, but both Ross and Fry have done it brilliantly. They tend to respond to the "gist" of comments in a way that everyone can feel it's an answer for them, but when the fancy takes them they will respond directly.
Wossy is also providing a valuable service, he's become what I'm referring too as the Celebrity Twitter Police. After a number of high-profile fakes - Tony Benn was reported to be on Twitter, but when asked by our Midlands twittering MP Tom Watson had never heard of it - Jonathan is taking it upon himself to phone up "his mates" and ask if people twittering in their names are really them. He's so far outed an Eddie Izzard and a Jeremy Clarkson as fakes. Unfortunately after explaining what Twitter was to Clarkson, "Jezza" has said he might sign-up for real. So it's not all good.
Like a reformed smoker, the new adopter of technology like Twitter - especially if they've been welcomed with such enthusiasm - wants to get everyone using it. That's great when it includes such obvious wit as Russell Brand, but more dangerously he might push Twitter mainstream by mentioning it on his comeback TV show. With one of the guests being fellow twit Stephen Fry it'd be odd if it doesn't come up (although it's not sure to make the edit).
So will a potential avalanche of new users make Twitter unusable? It might.
When I followed England to the 2006 World Cup in Germany the talk before was of how the England fans would be incarcerated the second they "mentioned the war". The World Cup was a great success and for England (off the pitch at least) things seemed to go well. It was still with trepidation that I travelled to Berlin this week for a game -- would being in the city that was the seat of the Nazi's power be too much for a certain type of Englishman?
Mentioning or not mentioning the war seems to hold a great power over the English, and not just those you'd think of as hooligans -- it's summed up beautifully by this letter from Viz (cribbed in this instance from this fine column by Patrick West on Spiked):
'Could I take this opportunity to remind the UKTV History channel that a lot of history happened before 1939, and a substantial amount of it has also happened since 1945. Not only that, some of it didn't happen in Germany.' A Thackray, Letter to Viz comic, September 2008
But despite the Great Escape and Dambusters film tunes being a feature of both bars before the game and the England Supporters Band's badly-played repertoire, I didn't see any trouble. I also spent an evening in the company of hundreds of German football fans, which was not only trouble-free, but friendly and fun.
Myself and my good lady have just come back from a few days in Tuscany, staying in Pisa with a trip to Florence by train (about an hour) thrown in. We went from Birmingham with a low-cost airline, which seemed unfeasibly cheap until the extras (ÃÂ£16 for booking with a debit card, ÃÂ£24 to take a case) started to pile on to the price, then it just seemed cheap. The restful trip didn't start too well when we found out that the airline has baggage weight restrictions much lower than you would normally expect, which lead to us swapping clothes between bags and at one point weighing a pair of jeans to see if they would have to be hand-luggage. After two hours of being mercilessly sold scratchcards we arrived safely, but with unresolved desire to rub coins over all silver paper we saw.
I like flying, especially now with airports so full to capacity that you get to walk out to the plane over the tarmac and feel like The Beatles or the Pope. I also really enjoyed overhearing "It looks just like Google maps" from someone looking out of the window as we took off. No doubt Google and the airline have a plan for overlaying adverts for local businesses.
I also like Italy although, at the risk of coming over all Clarkson, I've never understood the European obsession with Snoopy. The dullest character in a fairly dull comic strip, and yet the first bit of graffiti we see beside the train track is the small white hound. He's also on many a sweatshirt to be sold around tourist attractions, with his twin pillar of American marketed cartooniness Bart Simpson (the dullest character in what I'll admit is/was a brilliant show). What Bart and Snoopy are doing here is called 'Pisa Posing' or 'Pushing the Tower' - that is standing in between your mate with a camera and the tower and trying to line yourself up so it looks like you're interacting with the round leany thing.
The odd person pretends to hold it in their hand, some hug, but most either hold it up or push it over (an interesting psychological distinction, anyone want to fund a long research paper into it?). Of course, they're only trying to look as if they're doing it from the angle of their mate taking the photo. Which means the area is filled with people doing crap tai-chi. It looks like the biggest mine convention in Italy. It looks brilliant. I spent a good couple of hours taking pictures of them from the 'wrong' angle, and chuckling manically to myself. There's a Flickr group dedicated to it, as there is these days for everything.
Welcome to Birmingham, the award-winning event city. We've just held a successful (by most accounts) Conservative Party Conference, and as we keep hearing, 500,000 Rotarians are coming to be earnest and helpful and to confer about being more so.
An event city, what does that really mean? And more to the point how do the people who live here benefit? We keep being told that the Tories brought ÃÂ£20M to Brum -- but how much of that will ever get anywhere near improving things for residents? The Rotarians are also estimated to bring ÃÂ£20M despite there being twice as many of them, well I suppose they do drink less.
Let's consider Brum as a big old boozer, like the Yenton, people who live here are the regulars; some drink in the bar (Kingstanding), some drink in the lounge (Moseley) and some only come once a week and use the bowling green and sip half a lemonade all afternoon (er, Sutton). What's this got to do with being an 'events city'?
The events venues are like the function room -- the landlord hires them out to outsiders, they spend money over the bar and help to keep the place going but they might only book at most once a year. For the regulars, all they mean are more noise, the car park being full, the bar staff being busier and sometimes running out of Skol White Top or nuts. It'll also be impossible to get a taxi home, without stepping over people in Ben Shermans who can't handle their ale.